Nine days ago, I participated in an online Big Event with the Presbyterian church in Arizona and southwest New Mexico. I’d been invited to co-lead a Psalming Our Disorientation prayerful writing workshop with a friend. The workshop went well, and I also appreciated the opportunity to hear a presentation on the psalms from a Hebrew Scripture scholar as I continue to write my poems inspired by the psalms.
But it was a line from the sermon in the opening worship that is the starting point for my reflections today. Pastor Jim Toole of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (where I was baptized more than half a century ago!) spoke about the impact of the past few months. What caught my attention was his sense of a spirit-led movement “from busyness to being.”
I remember, during my time handling Human Resources for a religious non-profit, how difficult it was for employees at an organization that explicitly fostered contemplation to actually take their allotted vacation time! It seems that it’s a lot easier to preach about being a human being—instead of a human doing—than it is to actually live that way.
I got a strong reminder of that ten days ago. Henry and I were putting together a new raised bed to expand my garden. It’s a deeper bed (pictured above) that will allow me to more easily grow carrots and beets and other root vegetables. We had to dig up and move a plant and then clear gravel from the area. Henry put the bed together while I hefted bags of prepared soil into the wheelbarrow and trekked them from the car to the back of the house.
We could have stopped at that point. The sun had risen, it was over 80 degrees, we were sweating, there were other mornings. But I was determined to get it finished, so I began to lift and unload the bags of dirt into the bed. Can you guess where this is leading? Yup, as I lifted one last bag of dirt, my back screamed at me that I had seriously overdone it.
Did I stop then? No. I was almost finished! I unloaded the rest of that bag of dirt into the bed, smoothed the dirt out, then staggered into the house to grab the ice pack that lives in the freezer and hunt up a couple of acetaminophen tablets. Then I sat in the kitchen, just being, waiting for the pills and ice to take effect. As I sat, I pondered my tendency to push through to the end of a project, even when it’s not necessary—even when it’s not wise.
I guess I’m still operating as if I have a twenty-something body and a twenty-something brain. It’s also clear to me that I’m operating in the midst of a culture that rewards busyness, not being. As I noted recently, success in America is measured in accomplishment, not relationship. We are taught to press forward, succeed, rank up the awards. Teaching being and contemplation is deeply countercultural.
In the workshop mentioned above, each of us shared a poem we had written that “psalmed” our disorientation. While I had written this one (inspired by Psalm 34, verse 1) a while ago, it turned out to be very fitting for the moment—and my back!
about that “all times” thing…
My lower back hurts today—
I guess I can praise you that I have a back
and health insurance
and pain medication.
My friend’s friend has cancer, and
it’s spread to her lymph nodes—
I guess I will praise you for her
sixty-plus years of precious life,
which could be more years than this audacious psalmist got.
Prejudice is rampant—
I suppose I can give you thanks for having
eyes that look beyond skin color,
a voice to champion the oppressed,
a heart the same shape as any other.
about that “all times” thing…
at least for today,
I’ve got this.
© Shirin McArthur
This is definitely the worst damage I’ve done to my back in many years. I’ve gained a lot of compassion for Henry, who lives with daily lower back pain from arthritis. I’ve also gained many opportunities to shift from busyness to being. I’m doing my best to rest, and be patient, and trust in the healing process, which is unfolding. And I give thanks to God that, at least most of the time, my back works just fine, because normally I do take care.
Where have busyness and achievement tripped you up—figuratively or literally?
What psalm of disorientation might you write in these days?
Just this morning I sent a text message to Konrad’s son who has invited us to join him and his family in the Adirondack Mountains for a long weekend in October. This is Konrad’s old stomping grounds – the place his family returned to for vacation each year when he was a child. I thanked Dan profusely for his offer as Konrad has been longing to “get away” and loves those mountains. Dan and his teen age girls are runners and hikers, ACTIVE to put it mildly. I had to explain to Dan that Konrad and I are both coping – or at least recognizing the mismatch between desire and ability as our bodies age! My knees are bad this year (Ortho apt next month, praise God) and last year Konrad lost his balance while hiking and fell. Minor damage except to his ego when his son and granddaughter had to help him up and off the trail.
I am aware of our disorientation – especially after the retreat you offered Saturday. I keep going back to the last psalm I wrote – something I don’t often talk to God about… I may share it with you privately…. but just wanted to thank you for bringing to my attention the need for lamentation and the gift of putting pencil to paper as a way of crying out to God who listens and knows.
I have recently joined a Saturday morning Centering Prayer group here in Pittsburgh and the vestibule prayer offered by the facilitator this week was resonated… I have asked for a copy but the line that jumped out at me -spoke about being not doing…. seems to be a message I am getting again and again!
Thank you for your honest and thoughtful reply, Joyce. Yes, as we age, we get(!) to make different choices…and sometimes they are disappointing, and even disorienting. I’m very glad that the retreat and writing were helpful for you, and pray that they may continue to resonate in your life. And yes, being rather than doing is a theme I hear often, too. The Spirit speaks through many voices!